The value is in the classroom

The Social Security Bank in the Netherlands once came up with the term ‘working from purpose’. You are faced with a complicated situation and think “what was ever the purpose behind this?”

Legislation is made from such a social purpose to organize and shape society in a certain way. We make policies for that, such as interventions of something that may or may not be allowed (manifested in permits for example a driver’s license), certain incentives (money you recieve or have to pay) or certain information that may or may not be recorded (in the Netherlands gender may be changed in a passport). Next, implementing organizations are in charge of implementing the policy, and thus are service providers.

In this blog you will find an exploration of what we (should) be talking about when we talk about services in the public sector.

I lean on the literature on service dominant logic (Vargo & Lusch, 2004). I learned about this at Karlstad University and wrote this blog. I also draw on practical experience over the past few years, as you can read in the archives of this blog, and on existing literature on service standards and service design.

As I delved into the literature on service-dominant logic, I frequently thought of that term “purpose”. SD-logic calls it: offering products or services to users so they can create value for themselves. That overarching value is essentially the service. I will explain this with an example that fits the Executive Agency of Education, where I work now.

Value is created in the classroom

I have long thought that in the case of the Law on Student Finance, the goal was met when a student could apply for student finance flawlessly. But it doesn’t.

The goal is to develop yourself. To a large extent, the student must do this themselves, but we can help. I see that ‘we’ very broadly: government, society, we. To learn well and to make something of yourself, you need all kinds of things. I’ll mention a few:

  • good teachers and thus teacher education, grants for professionals who want to retrain as teachers,
  • a safe and comfortable classroom and thus a school board that can work with the municipality to achieve fine school locations, and can pay for it,
  • good teaching materials, which is organized by the school, as well as private parties who write textbooks,
  • traveling to school, using a student travel product or pupil transportation,
  • validation of your learning in the form of exams and certified diplomas.

It looks something like this in my head.

Providing these resources so that a student can use them to develop themselves, that is the service.

You already notice: some of these resources are sub-services. For example, an accounting application (a product) that helps a school keep student records (a service) that allows the school to schedule funding from the government (a service) to pay the salaries (another service) of the teachers (also can be seen as a service) who teach (a service) to the students who, if they do their best, learn as a result (hey, we’re here). A sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-sub-service.

Policy should be about value in the classroom, and so should the implementation of it. What does value mean in the classroom: is everyone allowed in that classroom? Can you learn without having breakfast? Does everyone have the financial resources to access the school? Are thinking skills worth as much as doing skills?

I’m making it very big now, sorry.

But I think it’s that big. All those (sub)resources eventually contribute step by step to those big questions. At the Executive Agency of Education, I’ve often heard that those questions “get political very quickly,” and of course we, the implementation should not be involved in politics. Fortunately, that is beginning to change a bit.

Not so easy

Much is known about how to create and deliver services. There are all kinds of standards, principles and processes for it. But they cannot yet be applied 1 to 1 in government.

For example, the government is there for everyone, but can everyone create value for themselves? We know from the well-received WRR-report Knowing is not yet doing (Bovens, 2017) that we tend as a government to overestimate citizens and thus overwhelm them with resources, letters and things to do but lose track of.

In addition, there is tension on value for the collective and for the individual. The student loan system is a good example. Conceived as a cut to keep education affordable, but it led to a mountain of debt among young people in the Netherlands. Perhaps this actually made higher education less accessible. As a service provider, how do you offer such a service? So that students can develop themselves but do not run into sideways problems with their livelihood or future prospects? Should you make the application process for such a loan super easy and accessible, or difficult? I actually don’t know.

Executor or service provider?

The ISO standard on service excellence (ISO, 2021) states as its first principle that “the organization should be managed from the outside in”. Read: user feedback should guide how you create and offer services. That feedback is crucial, and should also be the basis for the policies you make.

In commercial businesses, you see that continuously listening to the target audience leads to new ideas of what resources they can offer so that customers will enjoy a purchase even more. For example: a friend of mine has an electric car with a built-in app that calculates exactly how long you can drive and where on the route you can recharge most conveniently (with good coffee). The company behind it is a car manufacturer, but knows that with apps like this as an extra service, you help the user in his goal: getting from a to b pleasantly and on time. The latter is the actual service.

In government, we don’t think that way yet. We are focused on the commissioning policy departments, and obediently implement what they come up with. Transferring student loans? Okay. Managing diplomas? Sure. Distribute funding to schools? We’re on it.

So we are executors. Being service providers requires something else.

What if: we turn around and look at the classroom. Together with pupils, students and schools, and others in that service eco-system, we figure out what it takes for people to be able to develop themselves, how can we offer that to them in the smartest and finest way collectively so that the intent turns out in the classroom the way we wanted?

I am not a fan of Shell, but they do understand that for a fine car mobility experience, you need to offer services bundled and layered. The fast-charging locations connect to navigation services, there are fresh croissants, they outsource the coffee to Starbucks, all kinds of brands that together form an eco-system around car mobility and interact with each other.

Why not offer services bundled more often when we see and hear from users that they need them together? For example, why can’t you apply for student finance while enrolling in college? Research on the life event “Going to college” shows it belongs together. With both Studielink and MyDUO you log in with DigiD, in fact, the Executive Agency of Education uses the data from Studielink to decide whether you are entitled to student finance. But they are different organizations, with different clients, and we don’t perform under the same orchestrator. Unfortunately.

From arrow to lemniscate

See, with examples like this, it already feels a little less big and a lot more concrete how you can think of, design and offer services with purpose.

“But,” I hear you thinking, “you can’t sit in the policy department’s chair as an executor, can you? If the Executive Agency of Education comes up with the student finance law, wow wow… What about Parliament, which also represents citizens, right?”

True. There is a big difference there between the public sector and the commercial sector. Government organizations need to look both ways, both at the citizen in the classroom and the citizen represented in politics. I still find this quite difficult and am doing considerable reading in the literature as to what this means for service design and delivery.

But I suspect that this strict separation between policy and implementation that we have very strongly in the Netherlands does not help. We should make the process of law to execution from a straight arrow from left to right to a lemniscate, an always continuous 8. Policy and implementation then are not so far apart, because devising and offering resources cannot be thought of in isolation, and certainly not without an understanding of how it plays out “in the classroom”.

I’ve tried it out with the education domain, which is nice and familiar to me. What would this look like around a topic like livelihood security? Around perspective on work, or care and health? And how do these domains overlap? That looks like a fun exercise for public service providers in the near future.

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References and reading tips

The report on act-ability: Bovens, M., Keizer, A. G., & Tiemeijer, W. (2017). Knowing is not yet doing: a realistic perspective on resilience (No. 97). Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR).

ISO standard on service excellence: ISO. (2021). ISO 23592 – Service excellence – Principles and model. Geneva, Switzerland, International Organization for Standardization.

Article on SD-logic with almost cult status: Vargo, S. L., & Lusch, R. F. (2004). Evolving to a new dominant logic for marketing. Journal of marketing, 68(1), 1-17.

On this page you will see a list of books and articles I use in my research.


What helps and hinders?

Every research, including action research, starts with a good foundation. In previous blogs I shared the big plan and approach for the coming years. This first year is a preparation year and I mainly work on the foundation: what will I research and a plan how.

In this blog I will tell you about this first step: how I dive into the literature and thus lay a foundation for the research years that follow.

This blog is a summary of this more extensive literature review design. literature review design (in Dutch). This is my working document and changes from time to time. Do you want to follow the research closely? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Momentum for good services

Since the benefits affair came into the news around 2019, the human dimension has been high on the government’s agenda. In February 2021, the Temporary Committee for Implementing Organizations (TCU) made recommendations to bring back this human dimension to the government. Together with the child care benefit affair as a trigger, this resulted in the great government improvement program, Werk aan Uitvoering (Work to Execute).

Last week, for example, their the State of Execution came out with a thorough analysis of what is going wrong and could be better in services for citizens and business owners.

And I like it that they now increasingly call themselves public service providers – focused on the citizen – instead of as before implementing organizations – focused on the ministry. I need to update that on this blog as well :).

Landscape of public service providers from State of the Execution 2023

So for several years now, there has been political and administrative momentum to improve government services.

This is good news because in previous years, several organisations were already actively advocating to put services higher on the agenda. The National Ombudsman continuously appealed to the government with his reports. Gebruiker Centraal (User Central) found ground within the government and is increasingly growing as a collaborative effort for and by professionals within the (executive) government.

The report “Knowing is not yet doing” by the Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) also created quite a stir in the government. The WRR warns the government that it often overestimates the mental capabilities of citizens. They introduce the term act-ability, as a counterpart to ‘thinking’ abilities.

In this video, researcher Anne-Greet Keizer explains what is meant by that:

As a follow-up to Knowing is Not Yet Doing, the WRR came up with the guidebook From Test to Tools to conduct an act-ability test. WRR member Mark Bovens was questioned by the TCU about the report. In his questioning, and later in the Scheltema Lecture 2021, he suggested that the government should become proficient in service design and UX.

Haa! That’s my area of expertise.

Service design and UX design are certainly not new fields, and government, especially at the operational level, has also made strides over the past decade. In some organizations, there are UX teams, CX officers, customer journey managers, user researchers, etc. There is even an ISO standard for human centered design!

New dilemmas

At the same time, not only the call for more humanity has become stronger, but also that for customization. Both terms are regularly used interchangeably and are not yet defined, according to the Dutch School of Public Administration (NSOB).

Government services are highly automated at most organizations and “going back” to manual handling combined with individual customization on a large scale is not obvious. It also, as the NSOB describes, brings with it all sorts of new dilemmas (including legal ones such as the legality of government decisions). Directors fear that the pendulum will swing the other way.

We seem to be skipping in the momentum that there can also be good (digital) services that are user-friendly and connect to citizens’ lives. I elaborated on this thought earlier in the blog This is not about customization.

A sketch of how not to do it. From the blog: This is not about customization.

What I want to know: how can the government create and offer services to citizens while maintaining both the efficient nature of automation and legal legitimacy but also assuming a realistic perspective of citizen resilience?

The field of user centered service design has already proven itself in the non-public sector and seems to have potential for government as an organization as well. What will it take for this to mature? What are the reasons why this is not working and what needs to change for this to happen? What does this mean for the design and management of our government as an organization?

In short, my main question for this year:

What helps and hinders the realization of user-centric services in governments?

With this (literature) research, I aim to increase knowledge about applying user centered service design in government with the goal of making government services “doable” for citizens.

This will be the basis for getting started in the following years. I naturally devide this main question into a number of sub-questions.

The three most important are:

  1. What is “the state of the art” when it comes to user-oriented design of services? For this, I also need to look at what services actually are.
  2. How do governments create services and how have they organized themselves for this purpose? How does one affect the other?
  3. How mature is the government in realizing (at both strategic and operational levels) user-centered service delivery?

This month I tackle that first question. So prepare for a deep dive into the world of service delivery and user-centered design.

(Un)understood citizens A compassionate future Not part of a category

Three lessons I learned at the National Ombudsman’s office

My last week at the National Ombudsman’s office is entering. A year ago, I started asking all kinds of new questions that I wanted to learn. The main one: what do you see when you look for a while not through the blinders of government but really from the perspective of the citizen? In this blog, three lessons I learned last year.

Blinkers off means seeing more

When you work in government, you unintentionally have blinders on. This is not on purpose; it happens automatically. It is incredibly difficult not to have the frameworks and agreements you know so well as a civil servant in the back of your mind when you hear other people’s stories.

When you take off the blinders, the starting point is not the regulation or its implementation, but the question: what kind of society do we want to be? What kind of perspective do citizens want? In what context does their life take place? And only then: what place does government have in that story, including my little piece of service provision?

One of my questions a year ago was: how do your experiences with government affect the life you lead and the confidence you have in your future? What causes trust to be lost and how can government restore trust?

Among other things, I dove into the world of gas extraction: cracks in walls, a debate about what is safe and a lack of perspective and trust in institutions. I sat with Groningers in the garden telling their stories, got in the car with people giving a tour of their village and joined courses for case workers and social workers in the earthquake area.

Together with the National Ombudsman on a working visit to ‘t Zandt. Photo by Hans Roggen.

It was usually not about specific procedures, sometimes it was, but more often it was about confidence in the future. About children growing up without feeling comfortable at home. About not knowing whether you should remodel your house now, or not. About falling behind on maintenance, maybe wanting to move, but can you still get rid of the house? Your life put on hold by a sluggish government. Communities facing not only the effects of gas production, but also shrinkage, an aging population, social problems and high energy prices. But certainly not all doom and gloom either, life goes on. Babies are born, people get new jobs or relationships, dedicate themselves to the neighborhood and meanwhile we live, yes, I live there too, on one of the most beautiful pieces in the sprawling Netherlands.

When you’re making public services, it’s super hard be guided by that whole context. But I found it liberating to take off the blinders and listen to stories freely. Without blinders, my gaze was more open and I saw more.

I dare not say I now have a ready-made answer on how to restore trust. But I saw how to get rid of it, though.

When I was in Valkenburg in March one of the residents left homeless by the floods said: “Maybe naive, but during the floods Rutte, the King, Grapperhaus came here, and ‘the government jumped into the breach,’ they promised. I believed it and thought ‘we’ll deal with it.’ But now there is fuss about who pays the bill and whether the water damage is due to horizontal or vertical water. Meanwhile, no contractor wants to work here yet.”

That’s how you lose confidence.

Camille points toward The Geul that flooded last year. His house is still uninhabitable and there doesn’t seem to be any progress in changing that anytime soon.

By going there, you hear the real stories. You see the consequences of a decision that leads to new problems you had not anticipated. You learn this in practice and not at your desk. Listening without blinders means questioning your own assumptions. Not always determining the research question in advance, but going in that direction with an open mind.

I practiced it once at DUO. I asked students to write cards that they thought we should know. Back to the office with those post cards, I got an uneasy feeling. What was I supposed to do with it now? Most of it was about stuff that was out of our hands. Which brings me to my second lesson.

From the citizen’s perspective, government is hassle and chaos

At DUO I was part of the system, at the National Ombudsman I was on the sidelines. You immediately have a better overview because you can survey the entire field at a glance. You also immediately see what a tangle of players and rules it is. So whether you really have a good overview, again, I don’t want to say.

Government is fragmented and cut up into all sorts of loose chunks. Each piece has a defined task or assignment. Within those organizations, all sorts of things have also been cut up and delineated. From an organizational perspective, I understand that, because you have to create structures somewhere and break up big jobs so that the work becomes manageable at the level of teams and employees.

But the citizen’s context is then increasingly difficult to fit in, though. Cash flows including organizations’ own funding run along those cut lines and with them, accountability for the success or failure of the mission. That rich context of the living world of citizens gets lost. Because who can take responsibility for that? Or should I say dare?

The Groninger Gasberaad made this overview of all agencies involved in the consequences of gas extraction in 2020. It has since changed.

Last year, I spoke to representatives of different levels of government. With employees of various implementing agencies working together in chains, with administrators and also with a few ministers. Super fun to hear so many different perspectives, but also sad to see how much speech confusion there is between them. And how much distrust there is between the organizations.

For example, between local governments and the state. Difficult problems are passed back and forth like hot potatoes. That is not a sustainable way of working together. How to do that when major social changes call for a collaborative approach? As with the energy transition where citizens are in big trouble with their energy bills and cannot keep up in the energy transition. Or to give perspective to the generation growing up in debt, with no chance of good housing and steady work? When the climate damage will soon really erupt and be physically felt by most people?

Then we need a government that works well together, listens well and is open to feedback from citizens and each other.

I am really shocked by this.

The government is arguing with itself and you are still living in your garage. A resident from Meerssen tells how he got into a jam with the Wts (Damage Compensation Act) after the floods last year.

I didn’t realize it much myself as a government employee. I told a friend of mine who works at the municipality in Groningen the other day. She said once that she could tell from my blogs that I worked at the National level of government. Her response: ‘Gosh, you sure are late to the party’. She and her colleagues had long since figured that out. So that was my blind spot!

I’d rather not be on the sidelines

This lesson I learned about myself. I wanted to take the blinders off and learn more about the citizen’s perspective, but then I lacked insight into the dilemmas of government itself. After making recommendations from research, I wanted to get started. But then again, that wasn’t my job this time. That is not what the Ombudsman is about; that is what the government itself is about. Rightfully so, but too bad for me.

I want to work on those “wicked problems” myself. Wicked problems are problems that are networked, whose context is constantly changing and that involve a variety of competing interests. We can only address these if we start both from the citizen’s perspective and then work from a strong public partnership. We need both.

Screenshot from a presentation on The Energy Bill. This is the story of Ellen who contacted us. I photographed her at home and highlighted in her story what “her energy transition” looks like.

In recent weeks, for example, I worked with colleagues on a story about the citizen perspective in the energy transition (not yet online). For a workable narrative, that includes the story of the government and not just the citizen. After all, it’s about the interaction between the two.

It’s about how to design schemes from broad societal questions and feedback, make them fit together, how to align policies accordingly, and thus design cyclically with citizens. Basically how we design government together.

I like that the most anyway.